The debate that Pyle and Fowler have about regional politics in this chapter . Pyle continues to think in terms of abstract political forces: communism, colonialism, and a Third Force that might intercede to bring democracy to Vietnam. Fowler rejects Pyle’s simplified view of the region as overly dogmatic. Fowler uses the notion of liberalism to focus his argument. Liberalism is a political philosophy founded on a belief in progress and standing for the protection of individuals’ political and civil liberties. Fowler chastises liberalism for failing to live up to its own ideals. Also damning is the way in which liberal politicians use their ideals to justify intervening in others’ affairs. In castigating liberalism, Fowler criticizes the of American politics. Fowler also implicitly attacks Pyle, who meddled in Fowler’s relationship with Phuong but still wanted to convince himself that this act was not “mean.” In short, Fowler uses the concept of liberalism to illustrate how the political is personal.
After dismissing liberalism, Fowler critiques another hallmark of American democracy: the autonomy of the individual. Fowler resists Pyle’s attempt to get him to admit that he believes in this abstract concept, and he demonstrates once again how important it is to acknowledge concrete reality. He takes a Vietnamese peasant who works in a paddy field as his example. An abstract notion of individual autonomy would entitle this peasant to be treated with dignity and respect. However, Fowler points out that the American and European forces that wish to bring liberal democracy to the region do not treat peasants like individuals with individual rights. Instead, they use peasants as anonymous pawns in a larger political strategy. For all of the outcry against communism, it is in fact communist officials who treat peasants with the greatest respect as individuals. In this sense, communism proves truer to the spirit of liberalism than democracy.
Fowler’s arguments are entirely lost on Pyle, but they do showcase an important irony in Fowler’s character. By this point in the novel, it is clear that Fowler prides himself on his faith in facts, not judgments. In this scene, Fowler engages Pyle for the sake of argument and to prove a point about the faultiness of intellectual abstraction. Despite his façade of neutrality, however, the subtlety and passion that Fowler demonstrates in refuting Pyle’s politics indicate just how opinionated he is. Pyle’s point that Fowler is as much of an intellectual as York Harding is therefore apt. The irony to which Pyle draws attention is largely lost on Fowler until the end of the scene, when he leaps from the ladder after imagining that an animal has jumped onto it. Once he realizes that Pyle caused the ladder to shake, Fowler calls his status as an “unimaginative” reporter into question. Fowler’s self-questioning suggests a brief awareness that he is less objective than he thinks.
Sexuality and love are the last major subjects of Fowler and Pyle’s conversation, and the notion of virginity is central. Once again, there is a clear difference of understanding. Whereas Pyle understands virginity in the narrow sense of sexual experience, Fowler defines it in terms of a deeper experience of love, intimacy, and vulnerability. This is why, when Pyle asked him earlier about his deepest sexual experience, Fowler responded with an image of a woman brushing her hair. Pyle’s inability to see beyond sex prevents him from understanding Fowler’s point of view regarding Phuong. Despite Fowler’s tender admission that in his old age it is companionship that he desires, not sex or love, Pyle continues to think that Fowler is immoral for stringing Phuong along.
In failing to understand Fowler’s perspective on love, Pyle also fails to understand the extent to which his companion is opening up to him. When Fowler confesses that he is a coward in the face of love, and that he tends to break things off too soon to avoid the pain of loss, Pyle reduces his admission to selfishness. Pyle’s obtuseness is ironic because he frequently complains that Fowler is too emotionally closed off. In reality, Fowler has let Pyle in on his darkest fear, the very same fear of loss, pain, and isolation that the reader first encounters in part one, 3. When Fowler openly compares himself to a cowardly soldier running toward death, he is making a profoundly vulnerable emotional gesture. Yet again, Pyle misses the point.
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